TANEGASHIMA, KAGOSHIMA PREF. – The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on Wednesday launched the Hayabusa2 probe from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, beginning a six-year mission that will see the lander travel to an asteroid 300 million km from Earth in search of rock samples.
The probe blasted off at 1:22 p.m. on an H-IIA rocket, on course for the 900-meter-wide asteroid 1999 JU3.
Shortly after 3 p.m., Hayabusa2 settled into an orbit similar to the Earth’s orbit around the sun, JAXA said. The probe will orbit the sun once and swing by the Earth late next year before setting off for the asteroid.
If it is able to land on the asteroid successfully, the spacecraft will blast a crater in the surface to collect rock samples that have not been exposed to millenniums of solar wind and radiation, in the hope of answering fundamental questions about life and the origin of the universe.
JAXA had been in communication with Hayabusa2 by Wednesday evening, and its gyroscopes and other equipment appeared to be working normally, according to Hitoshi Kuninaka, a professor and project manager at the agency.
The probe has deployed its solar panels and is receiving power from them as planned, Kuninaka said at a news conference.
Analyzing the materials could help shed light on the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago and offer clues about what gave rise to life on Earth, he said.
The probe is expected to reach the asteroid in mid-2018 and spend around 18 months on its surface, which it will also study by dropping tiny rover robots.
In a galactic first, Hayabusa2 will drop an “impactor” that is designed to explode above the asteroid’s surface, firing a metal bullet into the crust at a speed of 7,200 kph — six times the speed of sound on Earth.
“The impactor is made fully with Japanese technologies that are so advanced you would think they are out of this world,” Kuninaka said.
If all goes well, asteroid samples will be returned to Earth in late 2020.
The launch was scheduled for Nov. 30 but was delayed twice due to bad weather.
The spacecraft is a successor to the Hayabusa asteroid explorer, which made history in 2010 when it returned to Earth with asteroid samples for the first time.
After its launch in 2003, Hayabusa’s 6 billion-km journey was plagued with difficulties, including engine and gyroscope failures and, at one point, a loss of communication with Earth.
Compared to its predecessor, Hayabusa2 includes more durable ion engines that produce 25 percent more thrust, and an enhanced antenna that can transmit more data back to Earth.
Hayabusa collected samples only from its asteroid’s surface, but Hayabusa2 will attempt to go deeper, making a crater with a metal impactor to access materials undisturbed by radiation from the Sun and other bodies.
Also on board the rocket, the launch of which was contracted to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., are three small satellites, including one developed by the Kyushu Institute of Technology and collaborators that contains communications equipment.
Several hundred people gathered in Hase Park, around 6 km from the launch pad, to watch the rocket blast off on Wednesday.
Kotaro Yamamoto, 6, and his father traveled from the city of Ichihara in Chiba Prefecture to watch the liftoff.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a launch. It was really amazing,” Kotaro said.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe celebrated the launch, saying in a statement that he was “very happy” that the first step of the mission had been successful.
Abe added that the launch “has demonstrated the reliability of Japanese space technology.” He also pledged to push for policies that support space-related research and industry.